When You’re Paralyzed by Anxiety

by Dr. Tammy Smith, PhD

Can you recall a time when you literally froze in fear? Maybe it was discovering a threatening animal, running into a past love, encountering an intruder, or standing in front of a crowd. Whether a truly dangerous situation or not, freezing means you were petrified. Paralysis is a sign of fear. It is the “flight” part of the “fight or flight” mechanism God built into our amygdala, the part of our brain that deals with fear. When we are paralyzed with anxiety, we can rightly understand that our anxiety is related to the fear we are experiencing.

The Lord certainly understands our brains. He created the brain, and within that creation he gave us a mechanism to deal with fear. He knew we would be regularly gripped with anxiety. One need only try to count the number of times phrases like “do not fear,” “do not be afraid,” “fear not,” “do not be anxious,” and “do not worry” appear in his Word to get a sense of how much he knew fear and anxiety would be a part of our everyday existence and that we would need such reassurance over and over (see Matthew 6:25, 6:34, 10:28, 10:31, 14:27; Mark 5:36; Luke 8:50, 12:4, 12:29, 12:32; John 6:20, 14:1; Philippians 4:6; 1 Peter 5:7). Isn’t it true that much of the satanic bait of our lives begins with the anxiety-inducing words, “What if...?” Certainly, those are two of the most dangerous words in the English language. Anxiety is and will continue to be an ongoing part of our lives, so the question for us is whether or not we have the proper perspective, tools, and approach towards our anxiety. If not, you might find yourself freezing in the face of it.

It has been said that fear and faith cannot coexist. It implies that it’s either one or the other: there is either fear or faith. They cannot occupy the same space. In my estimation, the Lord gave us this all-encompassing solution when he inspired John to write, “Perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). When we methodically, intentionally, and thoughtfully consider what this verse says, the implications are breathtaking. The perfect love of God provides for our every need, forgives our every sin, guarantees an eternity of our soul’s truest peace and perfection, loves us unconditionally to a degree we cannot comprehend, promises we will never be alone, and have unwavering hope against all odds (Philippians 4:19, Romans 8:38-39, Psalm 103:3, 1 Corinthians 2:9). Basically, when we truly understand what we have in the love of God, what, ultimately, is there to fear? Rejection? Abandonment? Disappointment? Embarrassment? Death? Certainly, the worries of life dwarf when placed next to the provisions and promises of God. Perhaps that’s the point of saying it’s either faith or fear, Word or worry, amens or anxieties.

To that point, when we are paralyzed by anxiety, God calls us to faith. Therefore, we must call ourselves to faith. His invitation, as in all times of trial, is to believe, to get the gospel down in deeper and to allow grace to win the day. To appropriate your faith is to pull it into your day, your moment, your “right now.” It is to pull the victorious end of your story and THE story into today. (Read Revelation 21:1-4!) Even when my feelings are telling me I am a complete loser and a failure and that I’ll never recover from this mistake and that I will lose everything as a result; even when my thoughts are racing and panic is setting in—even then, faith wins. Calling yourself to faith is to remind yourself what is your truest identity and value. Christ’s forgiveness covers even our greatest sins, and God’s redemptive heart can turn anything toward him (Romans 8:1, 2 Peter 3:9, Isaiah 61). To call yourself to faith is to do what Scripture commands, and “take every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5 NIV). If I stop to think about my thoughts in an anxious moment and it doesn’t match what Christ says, then I must discard my thought and willfully replace it with the truth of God. I will have then captured my anxious thought and submitted it, or made it obedient to the knowledge of Christ.

This is how we can be literally transformed by the renewing of our minds, as Romans 12:2 suggests. It’s fascinating. We aren’t told that we can feel a bit better, have our spirits lifted or our problem solved. No, we are able to be transformed—made utterly different—by working in our minds, reminding and reintroducing thoughts and thought patterns. Not surprisingly, science affirms this. Neuroplasticity of the brain and the way in which neural pathways form quite literally allow our chemistry to be altered by focused and intensified thought patterns. What that means is we can change our default thought patterns, our unconscious templates and our paradigms for how we see things. Of course, our altogether kind God knows that to which he calls us is also that for which he has created us. Therefore, the peace of Christ ruling in our hearts is not a pie in the sky statement, rather, it is a bold statement of possibility and reality.

Moving away from anxiety requires an ongoing engagement with your soul or taking thoughts captive and calling yourself to faith, as suggested above, but let’s be clear: many people believe that dealing with anxiety is to fight it. This is the wrong picture and will likely only increase the problem. Instead, you need to work with yourself rather than against yourself. No one ever defeated anxiety by trying to beat it out of themselves. Be kind to yourself. Hebrews 12:15 says to “see to it that no one fails to obtain (or ‘misses’) the grace of God.” That includes you. Don’t harangue yourself for experiencing anxiety. However, gently remind yourself that you can’t stay in it. You are generally very motivated to help a good friend who is paralyzed by fear, so be committed to trying to help yourself as much as you would help someone else. Be willing to put in the work. And here’s the truly great news (remember neuroplasticity and taking thoughts captive?): the work works.

An effective plan for working your way out of anxiety’s grip includes: (1) taking thoughts captive, (2) applying “small ‘t’ truth” to those thoughts, and (3) choosing “big ‘T’ Truths” going forward. For (1) taking thoughts captive: Try to “hear” what you are thinking. Ask “What am I afraid of?,” “What am I avoiding?” or “Why am I afraid of it?” Regarding (2) “small ‘t’ truths”: provide antagonistic data to help disempower the escalation of fear surrounding your anxieties. Such types of considerations include, What have I already faced that wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be?, What have I already come through that was awful yet I made it through?, or What did I think was going to be really bad (anticipatory anxiety) yet it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be? The third movement, (3), is to choose to believe God’s truth over your own estimation of things and even over your own feelings. To do so requires repetition of and ongoing meditation upon those truths. (There’s admittedly a lot in this paragraph. I would encourage you to write it out in your own words on a notecard, in your phone or a journal so you can actually begin to use this method.)

For instance, follow the pattern of another anxiety-fighting, immensely helpful passage of robust truth about the power of our thinking in Philippians 4:4-8. There we are given a veritable road map for navigating our way to peace. Read this through an anxiety-cure lens and see what pops out to you:

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things….And the God of peace will be with you.

Philippians 4:4-8 NIV

Can you see how this passage is giving us a prescription for the creation (or re-creation) of neural pathways?! These “grooves in the brain” actually become formed with repetition, practice, and meditation. When we speak thankfulness, dwell on the praiseworthy or list out ways we are rejoicing in who God is and what he has done, we are working with the way that God created our minds—with neuroplasticity—to be transformed into a peaceful person! Further, we see direct areas which when focused on over and over, actually become our thoughts instead of our formerly worrisome thoughts! Our minds can be trained to move towards noble, right, pure and admirable types of perspectives instead of anxiety-laden, what-if scenarios and stressors. There are literal formulas embedded in this passage which, when applied, will absolutely de-escalate any climaxing anxiety.

Corrie Ten Boom said, “Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow; it empties today of its strength.” We all know that anxiety steals the beauty and joy of whatever moment we may be in. Perhaps the tools in this reflection will permit you to have more of these moments back. No matter what, be encouraged to do the work of training your mind to take thoughts captive, surrender control and choose gratitude. No amount of worry has ever changed an outcome. It has only spoiled a conversation, ruined a mood, changed an atmosphere, lost the day, or given evil a victory. Sometimes it takes over and we freeze, becoming paralyzed. But with the Truth of God’s Word, encouragement of his Spirit, and promise that the work works, we can live more days than not beyond the grasp of anxiety’s grip.

A Note from the Editor

While some of you may resonate with these stories and experiences, we understand that no two stories are the same. Our enemy is cunning and knows exactly which lies to whisper in our ear to induce anxiety and crippling fear. The Word of God is living and active (Hebrews 4:12), and we encourage you to wield it as a sword against the lies of the enemy—but don’t do it alone. There are times when we are so weary from battling the lies of the enemy that we don’t have the strength to stand. Ecclesiastes 4:9 says, “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil.” Find friends and community who will speak God’s truth to you and over you. You are not alone in this fight. 

In closing, Please take advantage of some of the resources listed below. In his infinite wisdom, God has chosen to work through ordinary people to accomplish his eternal purposes for our good and his glory. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. I mentioned Ecclesiastes 4:9 earlier; the very next verse says, “Woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!” Too often, we wait until we have fallen and have no one to lift us up before we seek help. God can work through organizations and resources like these to provide you with the tools and friends you need to ensure you have help when you need it. And if we can pray with you and for you, we would love to do so. You can submit your prayer request here

Resources for Anxiety

Get Out of Your Head: Stopping the Spiral of Toxic Thoughts by Jennie Allen

Winning the War In Your Mind by Craig Groeschel

Resources for Mental Health

Organizations

HOPE International

NAMI

Anthem of Hope

Blogs

Hannah Brencher

Brittany Moses

Online Counseling

Better Help

Faithful Counseling

Podcasts

The Sanctuary

The Faith & Mental Wellness Podcast

CXMH

Image Credit: Michael Marcagi

About Dr. Tammy Smith, PhD

Dr. Tammy Smith is a licensed counselor, mother to 2 married sons, author of 8 books, competitive tennis player, pastor’s wife, and sought-after conference speaker. Her greatest joy is Jesus and getting to share His Truth, but she also loves to laugh, sing, hug, smile, and squeeze the best out of every moment possible. See if she’s coming your way or grab a Truth-filled resource at drtammysmith.com.


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